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Best Tips for Buying a Used Car - What to Look For When Shopping For a Used Vehicle

Updated on October 26, 2017
Journey * profile image

Nyesha loves writing about cooking/recipes, restaurants, movies, weddings, and poetry.

What to look for when shopping for a used vehicle

Used car buying can be a daunting experience. Are you in the market for a used car? Do you know what to look for when shopping for a used vehicle? The list can be exhaustive. The hub will discuss some best tips for buying a used car. There are many important things to look for when shopping for a used vehicle. It is important to remember the age old term 'lemon' and know that those type of vehicles do exist and should be avoided.

You might wonder, why buy a used vehicle at all? There are so many upsides to buying a new one- such as 5 year, 100,000 mile or powertrain warranties. You don't get that when buying used.

However, what you also do not get when buying used is a lot of debt. If circumstances are right and money is saved (by starting a car fund when it is near time to buy), you can pay cash upfront and only be concerned with paying for your tags and monthly insurance costs.

Car insurance also tends to be lower for older cars and collision insurance covering damage to your own vehicle is not typically recommended because it is not considered to be worth it.

Some individuals really do choose to stay clear of used cars because they do not think it is worth the investment to fix them when things go wrong. Additionally, there is that common expectation that things might go wrong more frequently. That is not necessarily that case if you buy as sturdy and dependable make and model as well as thoroughly research the background of the car including number of previous owners and schedule of routine maintenance.

You can run a 'background check' on a car, truck or other vehicle by checking its VIN or vehicle identification number which can be found on the window of the vehicle, next to a backseat. A reputable source for using the VIN information to learn more about the vehicle is

A carfax report can give you very thorough information including the vehicle's full history of routine repairs, knowledge of whether the vehicle has ever been in an accident, whether the engine was ever rebuilt, and more.

Sometimes you can get a vehicle history report for free. If you need to run the VINs for several different vehicles, which you should do before making your final decision on the best deal, you will probably want to order unlimited access to reports for a month or more at a cost of $30-$40 and up.

As you might be as well, many individuals are wary of whether a vehicle has ever been in a prior accident. Some say that the vehicle never runs quite the same after that, especially if there has been severe damage such as front end damage and the vehicle was very shaken or jolted. I know some people who refuse to buy used cars that have been in accidents for these reasons. There may be validity to their concerns but there might also be a lot of speculation. My advice is not to rule these cars/trucks out entirely because when you need a vehicle, you need a vehicle. In the department of used vehicles, these are even less expensive than others, but if you decide to trust in them, you should do a full investigation of the collision repairs they've undergone and how much more work needs to be done if any.

When looking for a used vehicle, you might choose to go with one "for sale by owner" or you might go to a used car dealership. The dealership may seem to be the more secure route but remember that for used cars there are often no warranties either way. When you take the car away, it becomes your full responsibility for whatever might go wrong. So, do not hesitate to do the legwork. When you see a car you like, obtain the VIN by asking the private owner or dealer and get back to them in a few days while you make your decision. It is a common courtesy for this information to be provided to you upon request, from the seller of a vehicle. If the seller hesitates or refuses to give you the VIN, that is a red flag and you can move on.

You can begin looking for cars on-line, at websites such as or the on-line version of your town newspaper. Many hometown newspapers have an on-line copy that often contains even more thorough information than the hard-copy, especially about jobs and items for sale.

Watch prices. Cars depreciate ALOT in values. Make sure you do not pay more than a car is worth. The natural progression is typically that the older a car is, the cheaper it is. A luxury car that was worth $40,000 ten years ago might only by worth $3,000 today.

When you see a vehicle that interests you, you should contact the seller by phone or email and set up an appointment to see the vehicle in-person. At your appointment, be sure to take the car for a test drive.

When shopping for a used car and test driving the car, consider the handling of the car- reaction times i.e.-the steering, any delays in the braking system. Listen to the idle of the engine. Listen for any sounds such as knockings, hums, or anything unusual coming from the car. Check the mileage (You want it to be as low as possible. Under 100,000 is terrific for a very old [8 years or more]. Don't bother buying a vehicle with 200,000 miles or more on it.) Look at the interior and the exterior of the vehicle, for any dings, scratches, dents, dirty upholstery, broken glass (mirrors, windows) or other broken parts. Even if you go to see the car in sunshine and daylight (as you should), turn the exterior and interior lights on and off, operate the windshield wipers, try listen to the radio. Look under the hood. Look in the trunk. Even if you are not a mechanic, go to your vehicle appointment with keen senses to investigate everything you can. Ask when last the vehicle was inspected, checking the stickers on the front windshield. A vehicle should not be sold to you unless it is newly inspected.

When looking to buy a used car, ask about the level of fluids in the car. So many things operate on fluids- transmission fluid, oil, windshield wiper fluid. When last was the vehicle flushed of respective fluids and re-filled? I.e.- when was the last oil change? How is the transmission in general? Buying a vehicle with a bad transmission is not recommended because they are very expensive to fix. How is the engine? How has it been with fuel efficiency? And so on and so forth. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Go with a short list.

Some individuals might also ask permission for their personal mechanics to check vehicles out before buying. Most sellers should comply with allowing such inspections. At some point, you want to just trust and take that leap. Know the risk, but also know that it can be very worth it to by a used vehicle.

How old should you go?- If you are sure that a car is clean inside and out with no dents, if you don't care much about other aesthetics like the car looking old or 'vintage' (yes, you'll have to get over that or better yet, embrace it), if the car has had very few previous owners, has no pending work to be done (i.e- 'you could buy my car but it needs a new transmission immediately'), and is a dependable make and model, it can be pretty old and still worth it.

Cars known to continue running well after many years (10 or more) include toyotas, hondas, audis, bmws. Keep in mind that the luxury cars will be more expensive to fix when something does go wrong.

When your vehicle does see it's last day with you (Maybe repairs will cost more than the vehicle itself did- hopefully $3000 or less. You don't think it's worth it) and you don't think you will easily find another buyer, then you can always donate to a charitable organization, where you might be given $500-$1000 cash in hand and can report a tax-deductible donation when you file your taxes the following year.

I hope this helps on your quest for the best used vehicle. The car in the pic below is 15 years old, clean inside and out. It is so old that it did not have a cd player with the radio but one was added in. Pretty good, huh?

Would you consider purchasing a used vehicle that is more than 7 years old?

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This might be difficult to foresee but what do you most anticipate as the likely answer?

The next time you are in the market for a car, will you most likely buy a new car or a used car?

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© 2009 Nyesha Pagnou MPH


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Before you make a pick, the most important step is to know the history of the car, which you can do by checking its VIN or Vehicle Identification Number. That is where ClearVin can help.

    • Journey * profile imageAUTHOR

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 

      8 years ago from USA

      Hi AllSuretyBonds, thanks so much for your comment.

    • AllSuretyBonds profile image


      8 years ago

      Great Hub and very useful information. I think we should all take into consideration all these tips on what to look for when purchasing a vehicle. You never know what you will get if you don't!

    • Journey * profile imageAUTHOR

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 

      10 years ago from USA

      HeSaid SheSaid, thanks a lot for coming by and posting a comment. I've really been enjoying reading your articles/hubs too.

    • HeSaid SheSaid profile image

      HeSaid SheSaid 

      10 years ago from our favorite love seat

      You're very thorough here. I know a lot of people think this stuff isn't important, but it certainly is!

    • Journey * profile imageAUTHOR

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 

      11 years ago from USA

      Thanks Nicole. I have to say I would probably buy only used vehicles, myself.

    • Nicole Winter profile image

      Nicole A. Winter 

      11 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Informative and concise hub, Journey*, thanks for writing this. I believe in only buying used cars... a new car loses %80 of it's value the minute you drive it off the lot. Keep up the great work!


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